WASHINGTON (Reuters) - One of the top unanswered questions of the 2008 presidential campaign has come roaring back: What’s Bill Clinton thinking?
The former president has increased his profile in recent days, speaking out on behalf of the re-election campaign of President Barack Obama, a fellow Democrat.
But some of Clinton’s candid remarks have undermined Obama’s attacks on Republican challenger Mitt Romney, leaving Democrats fuming, Republicans cheering and observers on both sides scratching their heads.
In the space of five days, Clinton went off message on two important issues - tax cuts and Romney’s time as a private equity executive - raising questions about the former president’s motives.
At a time when Obama’s campaign is casting Romney as a former corporate raider who killed jobs, Clinton last week called Romney’s business record “sterling.” This week, Clinton said he favored a temporary extension of George W. Bush-era tax cuts for all Americans, not just the middle class, as Obama prefers.
The comments became an unwanted distraction for Obama’s campaign, and were reminders of how Clinton in 2008 became a drag on the presidential bid of his wife, Hillary Clinton, with remarks about Obama that some Democrats saw as racially insensitive.
Bill Clinton is one of the most gifted politicians of his generation, an intriguing blend of personal charm and inconsistent discipline. With his recent comments, it could be that he is just trying to give some advice to Obama’s campaign by subtly suggesting that it stop criticizing Romney’s success in business, and be more flexible in its approach to tax cuts.
Or, for the real conspiracy theorists, there is the thought - making the rounds on political blogs and cable television shows - that maybe Clinton secretly would not mind Obama losing to Romney in the November 6 election so that Clinton’s wife, now secretary of state, would be the clear leader of the Democratic Party and run for president in 2016.
Bill Clinton has scoffed at such theories, saying a Romney presidency would be “calamitous for our country and the world.”
Whatever his motives, Clinton the surrogate is causing confusion and tension among Democrats at a time when the presidential candidates are working furiously to define themselves and their opponents.
After Clinton’s comments on Romney’s business career and tax cuts, Clinton and Obama aides scrambled to clarify his remarks.
Romney aides were happy to bring attention to the apparent divergence between Clinton and Obama, who had a tense relationship during Hillary Clinton’s bitter fight with Obama for the Democratic nomination in 2008.
Romney’s staff even set up a Twitter account, @Bill_Clinton12, featuring the former president’s not-so-flattering comments about Obama dating back to that campaign.
“It’s time for a leader like Mitt Romney, who - according to President Obama’s surrogates - had a ‘sterling’ business career and is ‘very much’ qualified for the presidency,” Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said in a statement.
Another senior Romney adviser quipped: “When it comes to undercutting President Obama’s attacks on Governor Romney, (Clinton) is a sterling surrogate. Just sterling.”
The Romney team’s comments came after Clinton, in describing Romney, told CNN last Friday, “There’s no question that a man who has been a governor and has a sterling business career crosses the qualification threshold” to be president.
Clinton also echoed other Democrats, including Newark, New Jersey, Mayor Cory Booker, in criticizing the Obama campaign’s attacks on Romney’s work in private equity. The campaign’s assault on Romney’s record at Bain Capital has been a key part of its strategy so far.
“Clinton does a lot of business in New York, and all of the New York people think Obama is wrong” to pursue a theme that could be construed as anti-business, said one Democrat, an ally to the Clinton and Obama administrations. “These are about Clinton’s politics, not Obama‘s.”
Obama’s campaign base in Chicago tried to limit the damage from Clinton’s statements with an email to reporters. The subject line said, “Bill Clinton: Praising Romney’s business record doesn’t connote endorsement.”
In a new round of interviews on Tuesday, Clinton said he was caught off-guard by the controversy he had caused. Then he caused another one by saying all of the Bush tax cuts should be extended.
Clinton’s office later clarified that he was in favor of letting the cuts for the wealthiest Americans expire, but he did not think that would happen until after the election.
In another interview, Clinton emphasized that he was not “an employee” of the Obama campaign but someone trying to help the president get re-elected.
Clinton’s friends, most of them longtime Democratic Party hands, defend what they see as Clinton’s tough-love message for an Obama campaign that needs help.
Lanny Davis, a longtime Clinton friend and ally, said Obama staffers would do well to heed the message from Clinton and others that the planned attacks on Romney’s private equity background were not a winning strategy.
“Just suppose for Obama’s best interests, the angry staff is wrong about the wisdom of the Bain ads as effective,” Davis said in an email. “These ads hurt, and don’t help Obama’s chances.”
An Obama campaign official said on Wednesday that Clinton “has been and will be an enormous asset to us, both on the stump, as a fundraiser and as a policy resource for the president.”
Clinton, the official said, was an effective campaigner before various types of audiences, “and we expect to see a lot more of him in the weeks ahead.”
Reporting By Sam Youngman; Editing by David Lindsey and Peter Cooney